Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries Blog

User Research War Stories

Posts written by Steve Portigal

  • Empathy for the Fieldworker

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    Steve Baty asks us to consider the experience of the design researcher and the associated demands/challenges/joys

    As you sit in your office on Monday, I want you to take a moment to look around at the people next to you. Take a good look. Those people are going to need your support this week. You see, this week they’re going to go out into the world and spend hours listening to people. They’ll listen to people who were turned down for a loan; people who had an insurance claim rejected; people who didn’t receive a visa due to an administrative issue. There’ll be people frustrated by a supermarket self-checkout; people who bought something online and can’t figure out how to return it; people who won’t submit an expense claim at work because it’s just not worth the effort.

    It won’t be all gloom, of course. There’ll be people who are thrilled with the purchase of a new car and how well the whole process went. People who’ve just submitted an application to university, full of hope and excitement. People buying their new home, moving smoothly through the mortgage process.

    Your neighbour will listen attentively and with sensitivity. They’ll listen to try and understand. They’ll listen because they want to make things better. And that’s going to be exhausting for them. Whether the stories are good ones or not, it takes energy to listen. And because they’re who they are, they can’t help but open their hearts a little in the process. And some of that frustration, and some of that anger, and some of that excitement will seep in. It’s part of what we’re after, though, after all – some empathy to go with our new-found understanding…

    in memoriam: Steve Sato

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    I was stunned and saddened the other day to learn that Steve Sato had passed away. I had known him as a friend and colleague for many many years. In 2014, Steve contributed a War Story and then got up at my CHIFOO presentation and told his story to the group. It’s a lovely story that I think captures Steve’s humanity as he reveals how life at home grounded him creatively and intellectually no matter how far away, geographically, he was.

    Thanks to CHIFOO, we’ve got a short video of Steve’s talk (embedded below) and I’m reposting his story below that.



    Finding Mojo In The Moment

    We were three days into our 18-day research trip. The clock was ticking and our progress had been frustratingly slow. We had nary an insight to show for our time spent here so far. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and we were already hot and sweaty after having walked a quarter of a mile on the footpath, the only way to a remote village in Uganda. Our team was doing field research on making microfinance more efficient and reliable, so banks and other financial institutions would find it profitable for them to extend their services to include microfinancing. The current system of paper and pencil, traveling back and forth to an office two hours away, and then transcribing notes onto a PC (“sneaker net”) was inefficient and fraught with errors and omissions. Furthermore, what was required was not only an IT system that could span “the last mile” but we had 15 days left to prototype an interaction model that would augment the device. It needed to be a process that the field agents and their clients would trust and adopt without much help. On top of that we had to identify what other not-for-profit and for-profit organizations (e.g., medical, agriculture, manufacturing and so on) would find the field device useful (so we could size the potential market for the device).

    I was responsible for the research and the results. I really was feeling the stress and the jet lag and I had heartburn non-stop from the first day here.

    We arrived at the village and our team was introduced by the microfinance agent to a group of a dozen women who were her clients. After a few minutes of conversation the women gathered and sat down, with the field agent, on the ground in a large circle. Two researchers stationed themselves behind the agent while the rest of us positioned ourselves around the perimeter of the circle. I turned on the video camera and thought “Whew! We’ve been prepping this for nearly a month and now we’ll finally get to make some interesting discoveries!” But then I spent the next half hour struggling to stay focused, to listen to the conversation and watch the exchange between a woman and the field agent. Then some amount of self-awareness seeped into my head: “The breeze feels so good, gosh! I’m so exhausted, I could go to sleep right now…let me see, it’s 11ish at night in Portland…Ohh! I promised I’d call my wife today!”

    Without thinking, I pulled out my cell phone and looked to see if I had a signal. To my surprise I had one bar! By walking away from the group towards a little rise I could get 2-3 bars which was good enough!

    It was good to hear my wife’s voice. I closed my eyes while talking with her for about five minutes, like I was only a block away. I felt calm relief return.

    But then my eyes popped open, because with the relief came a realization, triggered by my ability to connect to my wife halfway around the world while I’m in the African back country, gazing at a group of women sitting in the grass under the shade of a huge tree, with puffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. It was surreal and so powerful. I experientially understood our mission: to connect the people here to the world in a way that would make their everyday lives better, as was happening to me in the moment. Suddenly I was re-energized and fully present. Throughout the rest of the trip I kept coming back to relive this experience. It kept me energized, engaged and focused, no matter how exhausted I felt. I honestly believe it made a positive difference in what we discovered, what we surmised and in our final designs.

    Fire up the willing engine!

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    inspected by Lou

    I’m very excited to be working again with Rosenfeld Media (regrettably, I’m only including here a visual tribute to Lou, but the whole team is ace).

    I’ve been learning from other design researchers for my whole career, with a focus over the last few years in collecting war stories that bring to light the hilarious, upsetting, frustrating, disappointing, tragic, ugly, ironic but without exception the real and the human. That human-ness is what makes design research such a profound activity. You can’t escape the humanity (and why would you want to?) and it affects us and the work deeply.

    I relish the journey of further curating, examining, reflecting on and presenting those stories. I hope you’ll ride alongside, and maybe take the thing out for a spin yourself once we’re ready.

    Tom’s War Story: House Rules

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    Tom Wood is one of the partners at Foolproof, an experience design firm based in the UK.

    About 10 years ago I was trying to understand online poker playing behaviours on behalf of a gaming company. We’d recruited for a study across their various target segments, but the hardest to find were the high-value, semi-professional players. They prized their anonymity and guarded their playing secrets.

    One of the respondents I did find was a part-time property developer, part-time drummer, but his passion was poker. He was close with players from the city’s professional soccer team who were happy to lose large amounts of money in order to pick up skills in poker: an important accomplishment for the professional sportsman in the UK.

    The interview did not go well at first. The respondent was a regular online player but his behaviour when using the subject site was stilted and he seemed so disengaged that I began to worry that he was out of his depth online. Eventually I decided to reframe and go back the beginning of the discussion, where we had talked about his usage habits on his regular site. This time, because he was getting more relaxed in my company, I suggested doing this by watching him play. The key behaviour this revealed was how he found a table he wanted to join. This involved simultaneously watching a large number of games in progress – an almost incredible skill. What he was studying was the weaknesses of the players at the various tables: their inexperience, bravado, impatience, petulance. His whole demeanour changed, and I had a feeling like being a naturalist watching a lion selecting the impala that it is going to turn into lunch. Compelling but horrifying at the same time. It was clear that the subject site I’d asked him to use had poor affordance for this important process, but because it was a basically unchivalrous activity he had been guarded about discussing it.

    This change in tack got me this and other insights which informed our design advice. And resolved me never to take up poker.

    Most experience design folk enter the field because they understand that they themselves don’t have all the answers. I’m fond of this story because it was when I properly realised that I didn’t even have all the questions. I suspect that this job made me a better researcher, and certainly made me approach certain types of work in a completely different way. At Foolproof we always preface our discussion guides with words to the effect that the discussion guide is just that, a guide – and that we reserve the right to take any approach we need to in order to meet the research objectives.

    Elaine’s War Story: They call me Mister

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    Elaine Fukuda (@elaine_fukuda) is a design research consultant from California.

    I admit I don’t have a lot of experience with children but the opportunity to shadow a patient through an entire day’s hospital visit was one to not pass up. The patient being 13 years old added another layer of consent and assent, a mythical ethnographic research unicorn of sorts.

    The goal of shadowing was to understand the experience of the entire visit from start to finish, through multiple provider visits, labs, tests, and the waiting times in between. I met the patient and her mother as they were pulling into the parking garage and started the day with a scan. During the next two hours she patiently laid in a claustrophobic tunnel, and did everything as asked, from changing positions ever so slightly, holding her breath for 30 seconds at a time, and breathing at a specific pace.

    Having fasted since the previous evening, she was ready for lunch but wanting to get everything done before their provider visit, she and her mom decided to get a blood test done before lunch.

    We arrived in the pediatrics department and her mother stood in line to check in while I joined the patient in the waiting area. After a few minutes, a volunteer came over for what I felt was a break in our somewhat awkward small talk.

    The volunteer was a kind elderly man with a book cart offering free books for patients to take home. The patient, tired from the scan and possibly feeling out of place in the bright and cheerful pediatrics environment shrugged and said there wasn’t anything she liked. Determined, the volunteer took out a “magical coloring book” which colored itself with a flip of a page. She was still not impressed.

    Then came the pièce de résistance. From the cart the volunteer pulled out a heavy woven rope and introduced the patient to his friend, Mr. Stick. Mr. Stick had a magic ability you see, with a grand gesture he could become taut. In order to turn back into a rope, the patient was instructed to ask, “Mr. Stick, will you go down?”

    The shade of red across the teen’s face had long passed lobster and she and I stared at each other in disbelief. Her mother was still in line across the way, and as the adult I felt responsible but conflicted on what to do. Surely the man had no idea what he was implying? Being a very good sport, she complied and sure enough Mr. Stick fell limp.

    But the volunteer didn’t stop there. He turned to me, holding the middle of Mr. Stick, now back in its rigid state. He asked me to tell Mr. Stick to go down, which I did. Nothing happened. The volunteer said I must say “please”, which I did. And again nothing happened. He then said, “I guess Mr. Stick doesn’t go down if you’re not a child.”

    “Hey, I think they’re calling your name,” I quickly said to the patient. And with that we escaped the somewhat creepy, but good intentioned volunteer.

    “That was awkward,” she said.

    It wasn’t until after the blood test and during lunch that we were able to debrief and talk about the encounter with the volunteer. I was afraid the mother would be upset that I hadn’t intervened sooner. She was shocked but laughed, wondering if someone could really be that clueless. As I started to explain what had happened, the patient (who been sitting right next to the volunteer) intervened:

    “No, its name was Mr. Stiff, not Stick.”

    Me: “Oooh, that’s even weirder.”

    Mother: “I’m really curious how you’re going to write this up.”

    Ilona’s War Story: First Stop the Bleeding!

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    Ilona Posner is a User Experience and Usability consultant with more than 25 years of experience. In this story, she is challenged in different ways to leave her participants in relatively good shape.

    Around the year 2000, homes with internet service were rare. AOL was plastering the planet with CDs that promised free internet. Modems were uncommon and expensive. Online access usually required a modem card installed inside a computer case by a service technician, at a significant cost. My client, the largest Internet Service Provider in Canada, was redesigning their Self-Installation Package for its DSL service; today this would be called a DIY kit.

    The goal of our research project was to evaluate the customer experience. It entailed contacting customers who had just ordered the package, interviewing them about their order experience, and asking to visit their homes to observe the installation of the hardware and setting up the service. We visited many homes and observed people with diverse technical experience trying to install this package. The success rate of the customers completing this self-installation within our allotted 2 hours was very low. We had to suffer silently watching their ordeals: searching among numerous papers and user manuals that accompanied the package for the correct documents and locating the required identification codes; mixing up phone and internet cables; moving their furniture so that the provided cables would reach their destinations; and trying to explain their problems in repeated phone calls with technical support. In some cases, after observing them struggle for 2 hours and realizing they were incapable of completing this task unaided, we felt so sorry for them that before departing we completed the installation process on their behalf. We felt bad that they would have to spend additional days waiting, making additional phone calls to arrange for a technician’s visit, and dealing with the additional costs of assisted installation. That way, we also were able to witness their excitement and gratification of getting online; for some it was their first time.

    I clearly remember one participant who actually was able to successfully complete the installation, and it “only” took him 1.5 hours to do it. He was a male in his early 30s, technical writer by profession. His PC had 32 MB of RAM, and was running Windows 95. He already had a modem but was switching to this new High Speed Service. He had to remove the internal ISA modem card from his PC tower in order to install the provided Ethernet card. He was more confident and comfortable at this task than most of our other participants. While our camera rolled, he confidently skimmed documents and manuals, even when they were different manuals from the devices he was dealing with at the time. He opened his PC without difficulty. He proceeded to remove the internal modem card from deep inside his PC case. In the process, he cut his hand on one of the sharp internal edges of the metal case. His hand started to bleed! Blood got on his hardware. We had to interrupt our observations to assist him in stopping the bleeding.

    After completing our research, we redesigned the package. We reduced the number of documents and numbered each one for easy reference (unfortunately, this simple and usable solution only lasted until the next rebranding exercise conducted by the marketing department, who did not inherit our design rationale). We rewrote the instructions, using beautiful visuals. We also included a special highlighted warning, “Please be careful when opening your computer case, there are many sharp edges inside.”

    I wonder if anyone ever noticed that warning message.

    Loss of Context III

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    From New York Times Corrections for April 7, 2013 comes another demonstration of a) the importance of context in understanding what interview respondents are saying and b) the necessity of an actual recording of what was said.

    An accompanying feature transcribed incorrectly a comment from Callie Khouri, creator of the television drama “Nashville,” about what she would put on her Easter playlist. Khouri said she would include music by Pops Staples, the late patriarch of the singing family the Staple Singers. She did not say she would include “pop staples.”

    staples+4

    I share a story of how this confusion can easily happen in fieldwork in Conversational Layers and have some other examples from the media in Loss of Context I and Loss of Context II.

    Kavita’s War Story: Managing money, oh joy!

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    Kavita Appachu shares her story about uncovering emotion where she hadn’t expected to find it.

    Finance has never been my thing, and where possible I leave the chore of managing my finances to others. That changed somewhat a few years back when I started working for a company that makes financial software, specifically tax software. This threw me right in the middle of people’s financial lives.

    What I had not realized was that while the task of managing finances may be very functional, everything else related to money and taxes is at its core very emotional. I have lost track of the innumerable times participants have poured their hearts out as they describe how they manage their finances, from the twenty-something who referred to her mom as ghetto, or the hulk of a guy who rattled off the choicest of expletives for his ex-wife. The one story that has stood out in all this is about a mom, wife and editor in Seattle.

    On a rare sunny day, we pulled up to a community of condos with well-manicured yards. We rang the doorbell and my fellow researcher and I were greeted by our participant, who welcomed us into her very tastefully done home. There were pictures of the kids, family vacations, sporting events. It seemed like a happy home. The kids were at school and our participant had the morning off so she had decided to catch up on her finances, specifically her investments. We talked about the members of her household, her husband’s job, her job and their approach to financial planning. She was concerned their savings were not going to be enough for retirement and the kids’ education.

    She had all her papers spread out on the dining table beside her laptop. We observed her going through the process of logging into both her and her husband’s 401(k) accounts, monitor her mutual funds and stocks and even place a sell order. Nothing out of the ordinary…and then she broke down in tears.

    We were a little taken aback. She had a helpless look on her face and kept sobbing and muttering that woman, that woman. We calmed her down and then asked her if she wanted to share what was bothering her. She told us that as part of her husband’s divorce settlement from his earlier marriage he was required to pay for her stepchildren’s college. That was making a deep hole in their pockets and she was unable to save for her own children’s college education, take vacations or save for retirement. She hated the ex-wife and held her husband somewhat responsible for giving in to the ex-wife’s demands. She avoided tracking finances if she could because it was a painful reminder of her dire situation.

    That was my aha moment. I had known all along that personal finances are very closely entwined to one’s life, but this really brought it home: personal finances are a mirror of your inner joys, sorrows and insecurities.

    Whitney’s War Story: Stories of War

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    Whitney Hess is the author of Pleasure & Pain, and the founder and principal of Vicarious Partners, an independent consultancy specializing in strategic user experience. She believes empathy builds empires.

    I interviewed Holocaust survivors. Four words that still send shivers down my spine. Their stories were meant to shape my research; they ended up shaping me.

    It was the project of a lifetime. I was asked to conduct user research for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with web design agency Happy Cog. Together we identified several constituents of the Museum to explore: visitors, students, teachers, scholars, activists, volunteers, donors…and survivors. Survivors of the Holocaust. I would be performing the interviews, crafting personas, and reporting on findings to the Museum’s executive board.

    As a rule, when I engage with a research participant, I, Whitney Hess, cease to exist. It is a skill I have honed over many years of conducting research. I don’t get hungry, I don’t get tired, I don’t have to pee. I shed my beliefs and my assumptions and my identity. My only need is to listen. My only purpose is to absorb – with total objectivity.

    Would it be possible then for me to objectively study Holocaust survivors? I am a Jew.

    At first I told myself that being Jewish somehow qualified me to understand their stories and empathize with their pain. Then I feared that I would get so emotional that I wouldn’t be able to make it through an interview.

    I was wrong on both counts.

    I had the honor and the privilege of interviewing seven survivors – from Germany, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, and Great Britain – all volunteers at the Holocaust Museum in varying capacities. Some interviews were in person at the Museum, others were over the phone. They shared their stories of survival, and they shared their feedback on the website. Both extremes were just as relevant. I listened with reverence and I asked probing questions. I was so busy taking it all in, I didn’t have time to feel anything about it. I was working.

    When it came to crafting personas, I started with the teachers and students, moved on to activists and scholars, and eventually I could postpone it no longer – it was time to review my findings from the survivors.

    Reading back through my notes and the interview transcripts, I maintained my composure. I kept reminding myself, You have work to do. But in a moment of weakness, I allowed myself to listen to a recording. And then another. Day became night and I was still listening. They recounted the abuse they’d endured, the brutality they’d witnessed, the family they’d lost…it was so raw, so real. I let myself go. I cried, bawled. For what they had overcome, for themselves, for their families, and for me.

    In the end, I decided not to create a persona of a survivor, and my teammates and clients understood my reasoning. Their stories were unique; they could not be merged.

    Instead I gleaned a few key quotes, to convey the essence of the individuals. What they had to say changed my whole perspective on what we were doing and why we were doing it. Their message had to be heard. I had to share it. I got to share it.

    And it changed everything.